Friday, June 08, 2012

ACCEPTING "The Change"



In 2003 in a book called 'What Narcissism Means to Me', the poet Tony Hoagland included a poem called "The Change" that caused quite a stir at the 2011 AWP National Convention due to a plethora of racist imagery employed by the speaker in the poem. The poet Claudia Rankine read an Open Letter to Hoagland that expressed the feelings of many about the poem and Hoagland penned a response. The gist of Hoagland's response was boiled down to "it's a poem for white people." To say that there was a firestorm of controversy would be an understatement. A call went out for folk to respond to Rankine's 'Open Letter' and many poets (most of whom I know and respect) provided responses that can be read here. Unlike them I did not provide a response, partly because I'm a lazy bastard and partly because I felt there was far more heat than light being sparked. I had read the poem when the book came out and like many others was initially upset at the way the female tennis player Vondella Aphrodite (a stand in for Venus Williams) was portrayed. The speaker says, for example;
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

and later;

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.
 It is very clear that the speaker is trafficking in racial stereotypes in pitting a "European blonde" against a black girl described thusly. But the question that immediately sprung to mind for me was why? Why would Hoagland deliberately use such language? So I finished reading the poem to see to what end this imagery was being employed. And, Lo and behold there at the end of the poem the speaker declaims;

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

As soon as I got to the end I realized what Hoagland had done. When I went back up and re-read the poem's title, it was very clear. It is the literary equivalent of Lucy pulling the football out from under the foot of Charlie Brown. "Bait and Switch" if you will, because the poem uses said imagery to pull in readers who might agree with that type of rhetoric and then comes to the one conclusion that they least want to hear. If one understands nothing else about the idea of White Supremacy, they should understand that it is about creating, maintaining and defending a position of privilege, of power. Rush Limbaugh has made hundreds of millions of dollars by creating the specter of such privilege being lost and then defending said privilege on his radio show. But Hoagland's poem comes to the exact opposite conclusion, asserting not only that things are changing, but more importantly, that they have already changed, and furthermore

"when we went to put it back where it belonged, /

it was past us . . .".

In other words, despite the fact that Hoagland's speaker is a (or was) a believer in the white supremacist stereotypes, he recognizes that Limbaugh's battle is futile and useless, nothing more than one man pissing into a very strong headwind. And (at poem's end) he accepts this change and appears ready to move on. This change of heart is not to be taken lightly, it is in fact a very powerful example that Hoagland's speaker is setting. Positions of power are not things that are given up lightly, if at all. Human males will notoriously employ extreme amounts of violence to protect and maintain their perceived place in the social hierarchy. "Acting uppity" or "not knowing your place" were, (for most of this country's history) capital crimes for people of African descent. If there is a valid criticism of the poem, it is that it suffers from not truly earning its epiphany. That is, the poem asserts (quite declaratively) that things have changed and the Speaker (and others) have been changed also, but it never demonstrates how this change came about or how the Speaker came to recognize and accept this change. The Speaker's conversion appears too easily achieved. We can debate whether or not "The Change" is a good poem, we can debate whether or not it will be effective in the real world, but in my opinion, there is no debate about whether or not this poem serves the interests of racists or white supremacists. It does not, it tells them very clearly that their sentiments are part of a time gone by that can never be restored. The real test would be to take the poem to a Klan rally or other assemblage of believers in white supremacy and read it. I'd bet a thousand boxes of powdered mini doughnuts that whoever would do so, doesn't get out alive. This poem ends by asserting exactly what they are fighting against. And it does so in a very sneaky way that hits like a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

So why were so many people upset? Why the outrage? I think the reason is simple, people read the poem to somewhere in the vicinity of line 30 and then they just shut their brains down and become deaf to everything that follows. This has to be the case, because (although I've never met her) by all accounts Claudia Rankine is an extremely bright woman, her reaction to the poem is articulated with great precision and power. But it is (in my opinion) a knee jerk emotional reaction based on personalizing the poem and one that (again in my opinion) doesn't read the entire poem in an honest and accurate manner. When Hoagland says that the poem is "for White people" he isn't being glib or dodging criticism or hiding behing white privilege, he's simply telling the honest unvarnished truth. This poem will do its best work amongst those who buy into what the speaker is selling in the poem's first half. It may be possible that the bulk of this poem's intended audience will never read it, especially given that Limbaugh's demographic isn't known for their consumption of contemporary poetry, but I do feel that the poem does real needed work in the world. If you don't ascribe to the worldview of the speaker in the poem's beginning, then the sucker punch quality of the poem may be lost on you. Maybe Hoagland wrote a bad poem that will ultimately fail to make any impact whatsoever, but I don't think we can fault him for making a courageous attempt. Regardless of how it makes you feel,  the poem unquestionably addresses this country's racial complexity. And that's just the way it is. 

Until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).
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